Oct 27

Pride Goeth Before a Fall

Once upon a time, our agency had a very mean client. This client had an ego that would put The Donald’s to shame. She believed she walked on water and, as a newly minted partner at the executive search firm we represented, felt her personnel announcement should be a cross between "War and Peace" and "On the Road." This was a brand new client for us, and handling this woman’s personnel announcement was our first assignment.

Each day, a revised draft would be sent over and would boomerang back to us faster than you can say, "Crocodile Dundee." Why? Because it didn’t flatter her ego to the degree she felt appropriate. Our writers "didn’t get it," she would tell us. "They don’t understand that I once ran a company and was profiled on the cover of Obscure Business Today," she would sniff.

As the days progressed, our queen of mean became increasingly disenchanted with the drafts of her press release. "They’re boring," she would complain. "They don’t capture all of the amazing things I’ve done," Then, literally 10 days into the relationship, we were fired because, "we couldn’t execute on the personnel announcement." To add insult to injury, we were told they weren’t comfortable we’d be able to generate the kind of front-page trade story coverage her announcement demanded.

Fast forward to the present. We had just been contacted by a prospect firm with a strikingly similar name as that of the executive search company. Since the long-forgotten name was back on our radar screens, we decided to find out what had become of our nemesis. So, we checked the site. She was gone. After a little checking, we discovered she had landed at a larger, much better known search firm. And there was an announcement about her joining the firm in the press section. And guess what? This major tycoon of the modern business world received exactly two sentences in a trade rag. Ah, we thought. There is such a thing as poetic justice.

Oct 26

Your Call is Unimportant to us. So is your Loyalty.

Just when I think that the major international airlines are lumbering awake in the face of their impending doom, I am reassured that, alas, they are just as obtuse as ever. An ongoing battle with one of them, American, serves as confirmation.Aa_logo_2

Last spring, we flew on one of American’s OneWorld partners to Europe. In total, we flew about 8,000 miles, which American refused to credit to our frequent flier points. "It didn’t go through," I was told at first. Only after finding all my receipts, boarding passes and itineraries, then faxing them to Dallas and waiting for weeks, were we rewarded with a grand total of 1,077 points each.

Calling the customer service center proved to be a fruitless endeavor, as well (that was after searching the web site for a number to call, which took some time). Each time I called, I was immediately put on hold and forced to listen to Muzak. If American doesn’t want disgruntled customers to call, this is the way to do it. I gave up.

This is no way to treat a dwindling base of loyal customers. They have far too many choices and you need them more than they need you. If you want examples of good customer service, look at what JetBlue and Southwest are doing. Their customers are fanatically loyal.

Yet the big airlines wonder why they have problems. I would tell them to look within. You can’t blame fuel and labor costs for everything.

Oct 24

Hitting Below the Belt

The crack marketing minds at McDonald’s have fumbled with their sponsorship of a new, CBS/NFL pre-game show segment called the "Pounder Index."

Each week, McDonald’s and the CBS pre-game crew of erstwhile NFL jocks rate the most vicious tackles/hits of the preceding Sunday from a video and audio standpoint. Each tackle/hit is assigned a "Richter-scale" like number based upon its viciousness and loudness. The hapless New York Jets and their wide receiver, Laverneus Coles, took top honors this past Sunday for a shot Coles received courtesy of a Buffalo Bills safety that registered a "whopping" 9.1 on the Pounder Index scale.Pounder1023051_1

One wonders how McDonald’s Pounder Index would have rated the hit that Jack Tatum laid on Darryl Stingley back in 1978, leaving Stingley permanently paralyzed? Would that have topped the Coles tally of 9.1? Or how about the time another Jet, Dennis Byrd, ran full speed and head-first into a teammate and broke his neck? Byrd eventually recovered, but never played another down. Would Byrd’s horrific collision have carried enough visual and acoustical drama to have made McDonald’s top Pounder Indexes of that long-ago week?

It seems to me the burger marketers can find better, more humane ways to reach the NFL’s Joe Six-Pack audience than spotlighting the ever-more horrific "shots" that NFL players lay on one another.

C’mon McDonald’s. Stop with this hitting below the belt. Pull the "Pounder Index" segment. We deserve a break today (and every Sunday).

Oct 21

Journalism’s Evil Twin

I’m in the midst of reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, "Bait and Switch: the (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."  As she did in her incredible "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" tome of 2001, when she went "undercover" to see what it was like to be a member of America’s working poor, Ehrenreich goes incognito in search of a new story.Int_ehrenreich_25

This one really hits close to home, as the former New York Times columnist reinvents herself as a 50-year-old unemployed public relations freelancer and event planner.  She takes the reader along as she goes job hunting for a full-time corporate PR gig.

Unlike "Nickle and Dimed," however, the story is slow and unappealing. The author spends far too much time ridiculing the various self-help job search gurus and PR executives she encounters on her sojourn. What really got my attention, though, were Ehrenreich’s constant jabs at, and put downs of, the public relations field, which she refers to as "journalism’s evil twin."

Ehrenreich reminds me of so many other "holier-than-thou" journalists who look down their collective noses at PR and refuse to admit how much they depend upon us for ideas and access.  This has obviously been an age-old problem for PR people and isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Still, I’d love to hear or read something from a journalist that speaks objectively about PR, and recognizes what we bring to today’s 24×7 world.

Well, I can always dream. Oh, and by the way, Ms. Ehrenreich?  We’d never hire anyone with such preconceived notions and such an obvious chip on her shoulder.  Better hang onto that day job.

Oct 19

A Rose by any Other Name…

What a fascinating announcement by the National Basketball Association that it intends to clean up its image with a comprehensive campaign entitled, "NBA Cares." One of the highlights is a new dress code for players that will discourage Phat Farm-type garb and suggest they sport more Nbacares acceptable, mainstream togs.

The new program is a smart move in the right direction for a league that is still reeling from the fallout of last season’s Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons slugfest. But, like any other image or reputation program, the new campaign will only be as effective as the product, service or institution it represents. In other words, the campaign must "ring true" with the average Joe.

So, will we now see a kinder, gentler type of NBA player as a result of NBA Cares? Will on- and off-the-court behavior suddenly be transformed as a result?

If the league is really serious about changing its image, it needs to address players’ behavior first. The NBA must either institute mandatory counseling and training or provide some sort of 24×7 helpline for players who simply don’t have the wherewithal to deal with their sudden fame and fortune.

With more and more players being arrested for increasingly grievous crimes, a new dress and deportment code is little more than a band aid unless it is enforced consistently and completely. Otherwise, this new policy will have as much credibility with fans as sending Bernie Ebbers and Ken Lay on a speaking tour to espouse best practices in corporate ethics would have with my peers in the business world.

Oct 19

Detail Disoriented

Westchester County (N.Y.) District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, now famous (or, is she infamous?) for her 32 seconds of silence while delivering her campaign announcement speech due to a misplaced page, has once again shot herself in the foot.

This one is a real beaut. In her fundraising outreach, Pirro’s crack team inadvertently mailed a note to the candidate’s opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. To add insult to injury, the letter was addressed to "Hill’s" old address at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Talk about database mismanagement!

To paraphrase the Chinese proverb, Pirro’s credibility is dying a death by a thousand cuts. As she makes one mistake after another, voters will surely lose faith in her ability to manage the bigger issues.

The devil is, indeed, in the details. We routinely host "meet the media" luncheons at our office. Almost without exception, one of the biggest complaints reporters have of PR firms is the correspondence they receive replete with misspellings, incorrect titles and addresses, confused genders, and other careless and unnecessary errors.

Image and reputation constitute a total package that goes far beyond style and substance to extend to the tiniest of details, including an updated mailing list. One can win the battle but still lose the war by making too many foolish mistakes.

Oct 17

To strut or not to strut. That is the question.

Yesterday’s loss by the New York Jets was another painful
experience for this lifelong fan.

As I watched the mediocre Buffalo Bills move the ball
effortlessly up and down the field through what had been lauded as a tough Jets
defense, I lapsed into my annual "oh well, wait ’til next year"

Then, finally, a Jets player made a nice stop on one of the
Bills’ running backs. Immediately, the player began to dance, and strut, and
whoop it up, making all sorts of bizarre gestures of self-congratulations.

I know such antics have become commonplace in the circus
sideshow that is college and professional football. But have things not reached
a new low when an individual player, whose team has been pushed, pummeled and
pulverized all day long, decides to beat his chest in full view of 80,000 fans
and millions more on TV because of one good, but meaningless, tackle?

What’s become of sportsmanship? And, where is the
accountability? Why aren’t coaches schooling players on the nuances of when,
and more importantly, when not, to strut their stuff?

I wonder how this sort of behavior would translate to the
business world. Maybe the next time my firm finds out that it narrowly lost a
new business pitch, I’ll run out into the hallway and start doing a war dance,
throwing in a moon walk or two. Because, hey, we may have lost the business, but
I did one heckuva job answering the prospect’s question about the smartest ways
to beat the competition to the punch.

Oct 14

Staged Fright

I shuddered as I watched yesterday’s carefully orchestrated "teleconference" between the president and a hand-picked bunch of U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq. It was so awkwardly staged and so obviously pre-programmed and rehearsed that any credibility the administration might have hoped for disappeared faster than those still-missing weapons of mass destruction. Teleconference1_1

Drawing a comparison with the private sector, could you imagine a CEO carefully staging such an event and expecting employees, customers or the Street to buy it? I was working with a bunch of Fortune 500 executives yesterday, helping them with their presentation skills. We all agreed that while style was important, it was useless if the message wasn’t based on reality.

If the White House wants to enlist more support for their Iraqi initiative, then they need to do a much better job of stage managing their communications vehicles. And they need to give the American people more credit. We know honest answers when we see them. And we can see right through bogus ones. Yesterday’s staged exhibition was just plain frightful.

Oct 12

Saab Story

Saab As I was working out this morning and listening to my favorite classic rock radio station, I heard what initially seemed to be a clever spot from Saab.

The voiceover narration began by lamenting the "sameness of our modern lives." The TV shows all seem to have the same basic plots, said the disembodied voice. Same thing goes for major motion pictures, which all seem to be remakes of 35-year-old sitcoms. Saab punctuated the point by reminding listeners that we all seem to wear pretty much the same style of clothing these days.

But, when the spot ended, I realized that something wasn’t ringing true. And then it hit me. As the narrator bemoaned the sameness of today and contrasted that drabness with the unique qualities of new Saab automobiles, the background music was The Who’s 1969 song entitled, "I’m Free." Bingo. I realized what was wrong with the spot. In an attempt to differentiate their client’s car by talking about its unique safety qualities and stylish curves, the ad guys goofed by using the same advertising approach every other car company has been using of late: leveraging songs from rock and roll dinosaurs such as The Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones to connect with baby boomers who still think of themselves as being hip and relevant.

How sad, I thought. Saab had come so close to breaking through the clutter by correctly positioning its car’s very different attributes. Instead, Saab blew it by using the same old rock songs everyone else uses.

So, in the end, Saab marketers ended up embracing the very sameness they criticized in their copy.

Oct 11

Can’t Buy Me Love (or Job Security)

Well, well. The vaunted Yankees, with baseball’s largest payroll, went down in flames last night in Anaheim. No surprise, really. This really isn’t a team but, rather, an amalgamation of high-paid hit and pitch men. Angels_1

As a longtime Mets fan who enjoyed seeing the Bronx Bombers’ demise, I still see the Yankees as a great image and reputation case study, especially when one views the uncertain status of Messrs. Cashman, Torre and Stottlemyer. When they inked their contracts with George Steinbrenner the three had, in effect, made a pact with the devil. Steinbrenner’s "win at all costs" mentality placed a tremendous strain on both managers and players. All knew that each game could be their last if the Yankees didn’t go all the way to the World Series and win it.

Steinbrenner’s abusive management style may achieve short-term gains but not long-term success. I know first hand; I once worked for a Steinbrenner-type executive at J. Walter Thompson. I agreed to join the firm because of the financial package that the CEO dangled in front of me.

That turned out to be a very bad move for me. And I have to believe that, deep down, Torre rues the day he made his pact with Steinbrenner.

Healthy organizations don’t rely on fear to motivate employees. They build talent from within and nurture it. The best organizations encourage risk-taking and see failure as a smart, healthy and productive way for employees to become better.

Shooting for the stars is fine as long as the organization is patient and empowering. Working for a CEO who screams, shouts and threatens is no way to live, especially when life is so short. In addition to poisoning the internal organizational culture, management-by-fear has a toxic effect on image and reputation. Who would want to work for a firm that emulated the Yanks’ style? What clients or customers would want to do business with employees who are paralyzed by fear? And what competitor wouldn’t delight in besting this sort of company at every opportunity?

I realized my mistake and left JWT after a short while. I hope Torre and company pack up their kits and head somewhere else. Money can’t buy love. As the Yankees are demonstrating on the national sports stage, it can’t buy security either.